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Ex-caregiver charged with murder of missing Fla. girl

Case led to probe of state foster care

MIAMI -- A woman who was supposed to be taking care of Rilya Wilson was charged yesterday with murdering the 4-year-old, three years after the foster child's disappearance made Florida's child-protection agency a scandal.

Geralyn Graham was also charged with kidnapping and aggravated child abuse. No body has been found, prosecutors said.

''Our grand jury has heard the facts and determined that Rilya's disappearance was the result of an act of violence and has indicted the child's former caretaker," State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.

Graham allegedly confessed while jailed on unrelated fraud charges and investigators later found corroborating evidence, said Fernandez Rundle, who declined to give specifics.

''She basically broke down and told someone in the jail details about Rilya Wilson, including how she killed her," the prosecutor said.

Graham's attorney, Brian L. Tannebaum, said: ''That's completely not true. That's based on a jailhouse snitch. . . . They have no other evidence."

Rilya's story became known three years ago, when it was discovered that she was not living at the home she shared with Graham and another woman, Pamela Graham, who was Rilya's legal guardian. The Grahams said a state social worker had taken the child in early 2001 for medical testing and never returned with the girl, who was 4 when last seen.

The girl's disappearance had gone unnoticed for months by the Florida Department of Children & Families. The scandal led to a major shakeup at the agency, as well as a search for the girl.

Prosecutors refused to give details of how they determined to charge Geralyn Graham, and the indictment doesn't mention any evidence. The indictment did allege, however, that Rilya was either suffocated or beaten to death in December 2000.

Tannebaum said, ''This is a woman who they charged with kidnapping without any evidence that she took the child anywhere, and now they've charged her with the murder of a child they have not located."

Graham is in jail on unrelated fraud charges and could have a court appearance as early as today on the new charges, said state attorney spokesman Ed Griffith.

The fallout of Rilya's disappearance was immediate.

A blue-ribbon panel appointed by Governor Jeb Bush to investigate Rilya's disappearance found massive problems at the Department of Children & Families, including the failure to check the background of caregivers and low pay for child protection workers.

Kathleen Kearney, secretary of the department, resigned in September 2002, and seven of 14 regional administrators were replaced.

Geralyn Graham was arrested shortly after the disappearance on unrelated charges and was convicted of using a friend's Social Security number to buy a sport utility vehicle. She was sentenced to three years in jail, where she remains. Pamela Graham pleaded guilty to accepting welfare payments for Rilya after the girl left her care and received two years' probation.

But no charges were filed in Rilya's disappearance until August, when Geralyn Graham was accused of aggravated child abuse in the alleged mistreatment, such as locking Rilya in a cage. She was also charged with kidnapping in removing Rilya from Pamela Graham's custody. Graham, who was cooperating with authorities, was charged with child abuse.

The Department of Children & Families later acknowledged that its background check failed to discover that Geralyn Graham had a long criminal history of fraud and had been diagnosed as psychotic six months before Rilya moved in.

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